Sergio De Karlo: The Maestro of Cuban Bolero

Louis Roche

“Music is my life and my death, because I’m going to die singing,” says the suave and sophisticated, yet unassuming maestro of the Cuban Bolero as he settles back into his favorite easy chair next to the fireplace. “You know, today is my 97th birthday.”

“My goal is to reach 100,” he says. Sergio De Karlo’s claim is punctuated by his confident attitude, a sign that in his own mind, there is little doubt he is going to make it. His wife Juana beams proudly at him as they prepare to celebrate his birthday with champagne, hors d’oeuvres, family and good friends. As guests come into the living room, they greet the Cuban composer with the kind of dignity and respect shown only to a Sicilian godfather.

When everyone has arrived, the small, intimate group gathers in the living room, sitting quietly on the couch in front of the fireplace, as if waiting for instructions or perhaps a few words of wisdom from the guest of honor. Juana breaks the silence: “I remember meeting Sergio for the first time. He had the looks of 10 men. So handsome, so debonair, so talented, for me it was love at first sight.” She gently and reassuringly touches his shoulder and says, “Tell them about your music, mi vida.”

Sergio gathers his thoughts and eagerly takes the stage once more; this time though, it is only in his mind. As the imaginary curtain goes up, all eyes are on the maestro. Longtime friends and associates listen carefully as Sergio begins to tell his magical story, perhaps for the last time.


“I was born to affluent parents in Havana, Cuba in 1911, and I was blessed with the gift of music,” he says. Sergio credits his earliest musical influences to the legendary composers Johann Strauss and Ernesto Lecuona. As a child, he would sit with his father in the drawing room of the family’s modest estate, listening intently to the classical and regional folk music of Spain on one of the first player pianos available in Cuba. His brother Robert recalls: “Sergio was a musical genius. From as far back as I can remember, he was always singing and dancing. My parents would have him entertain our guests whenever they would come over for parties.”

Early on, Sergio was fascinated with the music of the local African musicians who performed their pulsating rhythms along the seashore on hot and humid Havana nights. Little did he know at the time, that his acute interest in the traditional ballads of Spain and the rhythmic chants of Africa would come to play such a pivotal role in the birth of the Cuban Bolero.

One balmy evening in July, Sergio’s nanny, Isabel, took him to a tribal celebration in a nearby African village. (The Africans, who lived in Havana at that time, were ex-slaves who had been freed years earlier. They worked in the major cities but preferred to live together in small communities along the seashore.) Young Sergio sat in the village square as twilight approached, watching and listening with keen anticipation as the eerie sounds of pulsating drumbeats and hypnotic chanting began to fill the night air with exhilaration.

A fever pitch ensued as traditional dancers swayed to the pounding beat of the drums. An enormous bonfire crackled in the background, with red-orange flames shooting skyward, enhanced by the soaring palm trees swaying in the tropical wind. The celebration continued throughout the night, with Sergio taking in every moment and every sound. Something inside him stirred, as he took delight in all that he had seen and heard. For, after all, it was his first taste of the Afro-Cuban rhythm.

Sergio recalls, “When I was 14, because of my love for music, my father bought me a violin and a pianola. I never played sports as a boy. My father enrolled me at the Music Conservatory of Cuba when I was very young.” His dream of becoming a musician had suddenly become a reality. Through his studies, Sergio attempted to meld the rhythms of the African tribal chants that had inspired him with the traditional Spanish ballads that he knew and played frequently on the family piano. Somehow though, he couldn’t quite make the connection.

One day, Yoyo, the son of a cook who worked for Sergio’s family, came by to visit his father. Sergio persuaded him to play the African drum that he always carried. As the small boy started to play, Sergio began to play a Spanish ballad on the piano. Combining the two musical styles, Sergio and Yoyo inadvertently created some of the first Cuban ballads, or boleros. Because Cuba had very little music of its own at the time, the bolero, along with the Afro-Cuban rhythm, was to become synonymous with Cuban culture. Sergio was so taken with this new approach to music that he began to convert all of the Spanish ballads that he knew into boleros.

In 1927, at the age of 16, Sergio became a professional entertainer when he was cast as a chorus boy in a musical created by the world-famous Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. Shortly thereafter, he ventured out on his own, forming Arittola, one of the first jazz bands in Cuba. His younger brother Bobby says with pride, “Everyone wanted to be like him in those days. He was good looking and uninhibited. I carried his guitar just so I could be near him.”

At the age of 18, Sergio took a local girl as his lover. After a whirlwind romance, Zorieta Lima became pregnant.

Wanting to do the right thing, the couple soon married and then a baby girl was born, whom they also named Zorieta. Following the birth of their daughter, Sergio became irritable and impatient with home life and began to stay out late looking for excitement and adventure. Being the ever-vigilant ladies man, he fostered a series of love affairs with several of the women whom he had met at the local nightclub where he performed.

The Tailor

While everything seemed to be going well for Sergio, in reality, quite the opposite was true. Because he was attending the Music Conservatory, leading the jazz band and entertaining crowds of adoring girls, his busy schedule left little time for Zorieta and the baby. Still a newlywed, Zorieta quickly became disillusioned with married life and began to seek her passion elsewhere. In the meantime, her family blamed Sergio for her discontent and unhappiness. The girl’s father and his cousin, known as The Tailor (a man who had killed two men and gotten away with it), decided to kill Sergio.

For the next two months, The Tailor sat across the street from Sergio’s apartment building with a loaded pistol, waiting for the wayward husband to come outside into the street, so that he could eliminate the scoundrel. Sergio’s family, although influential, could not refute the accusations involving their son’s offensive behavior and of his neglect for Zorieta.

Consequently, the family had no choice but to deal with the dilemma and its dreadful impact on their lives. By unanimous consensus, the family’s only choice was to make immediate plans for Sergio to leave Cuba and to go to America, as quickly and quietly as possible. After much deliberation, the family conceived a plan that would entail waiting for The Tailor to leave his post, even for an instant, while a cab owned by Sergio’s uncle would be waiting nearby ready to pull up in front of the building and pick up the fleeing musician at a moment’s notice. As if by sheer luck, the opportunity they had been waiting for presented itself two days later.

As Sergio peered from his upstairs window that fateful afternoon watching the gunman’s every move, The Tailor left his post to buy a pack of cigarettes. This was it!

Sergio’s uncle, who had positioned himself strategically around the corner, quickly jumped into his car, gunned the engine, and pulled around to the front entrance of the building where the young Sergio was waiting. Hastily, he jumped into the back seat of the cab, and proceeded to crouch down onto the floorboards of the car with all of the possessions that he could carry. His uncle sped away without The Tailor ever knowing what had happened.

That night, under the cover of darkness and with $200 in his pocket, Sergio said goodbye to his family and boarded a tramp steamer bound for New York City. Ultimately, his dreams of stardom would be complicated only by his struggle for survival. When he arrived at Ellis Island, Sergio remembered his first impression. “When I first saw New York, I fell in love. I knew that things had happened for a reason. I loved this city, and it loved me.”

As Sergio takes a break from telling his story, the room is filled with subdued chatter. Voicing their anticipation and excitement, the small group seems truly grateful for his unexpected good fortune and for his harrowing escape from The Tailor. Sergio takes a sip of champagne and prepares to eat a piece of his birthday cake. Suddenly, it seems quite surprising that the year is 2008 and not 1930.

Big Maestro on Campus

During the spring semester of 1994, on an unusually warm Thursday afternoon, the members of the computer club of Glendale Community College gathered to discuss the latest technological advancements and to daydream about futuristic innovations. As the students took their seats around the large oval-shaped conference table, the professor proceeded to ask the class if anyone had any computer-related questions or practical problems that the group could solve together.

It was at that moment that a curiously anonymous gentleman, who at first glance seemed to possess the qualities of worldly intelligence, raised his hand, seeking to be recognized. As the class turned around to see who was speaking, they saw an elderly man seated not at the main table with the rest of the class, but by himself in a small, confining desk in the back of the room.

With calculated intent, the old man asked, “Does anyone in the room know how to connect an electronic keyboard to a personal computer?” He continued, “I would like to record and sequence my own music.” After a lengthy discussion, one student said that he understood what the man wanted to do and that he would be glad to show him how it was done.

The student explained that what was needed was a set of MIDI cables (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). He said that the cables would allow a variety of electronic devices such as computers, synthesizers, or drum machines, to “talk” to each other. The old man seemed satisfied with the answer and said that he would be interested in getting together with this younger student, thus prompting an invitation to his home. The student accepted the request and went to the man’s house about a week later.

Flores Negras

This is how I came to meet the man they call “the Cuban Maestro.” Little did I know at the time, that Sergio’s wisdom and friendship would change my life forever. As I pulled up in front of the house, the old man was already waiting. He proceeded down the front porch steps of his aging home, welcoming me like an old friend. He asked me to call him Sergio. As we entered the house, he introduced me to his wife Juana, a lovely woman with a pleasant disposition, who appeared to be in her late 40s.

Juana said, “I’m very happy to meet you. Sergio has been eagerly anticipating your visit all week.” I thanked her and followed Sergio into his “office,” a small converted bedroom off of the kitchen that was filled with more musical instruments and electronic equipment than most recording studios. Upon closer inspection, the room seemed barely big enough for Sergio, his equipment and his desk, let alone two big men. Approximately 15 by 20 feet, the office served as a library, a recording studio, a screening room, a religious shrine and what seemed to be a sanctuary from the outside world.

Sergio’s claustrophobic, cluttered room was, in fact, a calculated complex of organized chaos. A quick visual survey inventoried the musical instruments packed into every corner of the room: violins, accordions, guitars, electronic keyboards and an old player piano. With characteristic enthusiasm, Sergio rolled up his sleeves and said, “Let’s get to work.” Gathering all of the various electronic pieces, we proceeded to spend the entire afternoon working together in a valiant attempt to make everything work just as Sergio had requested. Unfortunately, the equipment that Sergio had so depended on to fulfill his vision, turned out to be too old and obsolete to be of much use to anyone. Consequently, the dream of sequencing his music was not to be realized that day.

We were sitting side-by-side, contemplating our next move when Sergio said “I want to play something for you.” It was a recording of “Flores Negras” by the Mexican singing star Pedro Vargas. “Well, what do you think?” he said. “What a beautiful song!” I replied. “Who wrote it?” Sergio said, “I did!” He said that he had written “Flores Negras” in 1934, and that it has been recorded more than 100 times by such big name artists as Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Eydie Gorme and Lawrence Welk, among others. It was his masterpiece.

One afternoon, Sergio produced a moldy trunk of old publicity photos and newspaper clippings from the attic. In thumbing through the vast assortment of old photos, press clippings, stage reviews and PR announcements, I began to fully appreciate the extent of Sergio’s talent and the genius of his professional accomplishments. It was at this moment that I came to understand why Sergio’s music was considered by many to be so intoxicating, so timeless and equal to that of the great masters of Latin music. Sergio became a fixture in my mind as not only a friend, but as an icon: the Maestro of the Cuban Bolero.

As time went on, we spent countless hours talking about the history of Latin music, and Sergio shared his seminal experiences in the creation of the Afro-Cuban rhythm. Supportive of our friendship and Sergio’s creative endeavors, Juana would generously make us the most delicious Spanish dishes that I had ever eaten.

As Sergio finishes his birthday cake, the room quiets down and the guests take their seats. The imaginary stage curtain rises once again, as he continues with his story.

New York

Forced to flee his beloved Cuba because of complications from a failed romance, depression-era New York did not welcome Sergio with open arms. He did, however, manage to find a job as a dancer, entertaining patrons at a Chinese restaurant, thus keeping his show business dreams alive. Sergio explains, “When I arrived in New York, I felt very important. I knew that I would be a star someday, and I was!”

Through many hardships and disappointments, Sergio persevered and was eventually offered his first real break in show business. Befriended by The Gills, a brother and sister vaudeville team, Sergio was asked to perform his own material during their costume changes at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. The audience loved the enthusiastic young singer.

When Sergio wrote the show’s hit song, “Last of the Rumba’s,” bandleaders such as Andre Kostelanetz and Xavier Cugat quickly began to play it on their radio shows. Irving Berlin, fascinated by the young man’s knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms, offered Sergio a publishing contract for one of his composition’s called “Bagoo,” a song about island life in Cuba.

In 1934, hoping to conquer new horizons, Sergio began to study music with Agustin Lara, the world-renowned Mexican composer of numerous hits, including the Latin standard “Granada.” At this time, Sergio made his singing debut at the Olympia Theatre in Mexico City. He also wrote several songs for a new movie called “Odio,” including the beautiful and romantic ballad “Flores Negras.” This song became an enormous hit, propelling Sergio to major stardom throughout Mexico.

In 1940, Sergio appeared in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway production of “Too Many Girls,” replacing the Hollywood-bound Desi Arnaz as a Cuban heartthrob. In 1942, Sergio wrote a song for President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “Mr. Franklin D.” The President was elated by the composition and gave Sergio the honorary title of “Ambassador of Melody.” Soon after, Sergio launched a tour of Hawaii with the King Sisters, Edgar Bergen and Martha Raye on behalf of the war effort.

During the early 1940’s, Sergio played many nightclubs in Manhattan. He appeared opposite Carmen Miranda at the Versailles Club and with Xavier Cugat at the Waldorf Astoria. He also co-starred in the Michael Todd/Cole Porter musical “Mexican Hayride,” which ran for four years on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre.

As his career flourished in New York City, Sergio was invited to Hollywood to audition for the leading role in the picture “The Life of Rudolph Valentino.” He also landed a supporting role in the Alan Ladd/Paramount Pictures film “Captain Carey U.S.A.” Playing an Italian minstrel in the film, Sergio introduced the lovely romantic ballad “Mona Lisa” to the world. Written by Ray Evans, this famous song won the Academy Award for best song of 1950 and was later recorded by Nat King Cole.

Returning to Mexico City in 1950, Sergio starred in several feature films. Along with scoring many other theatrical productions, his songwriting ability and nightclub appearances rendered him the toast of Mexico. After achieving great success for many years in the United States and Mexico, Sergio eventually retired from show business and moved to Los Angeles where he continued to compose and arrange his music.

As Sergio completes his magical story one last time, it’s late and his birthday party comes to a reluctant end. All those in attendance celebrate his life and his music by singing his masterpiece “Flores Negras” in unison.

Bolero Productions

I stayed behind to help Juana clean up after the party, and reflected on my own feelings about my friend Sergio De Karlo, the famous composer and his illustrious career.

Before ever becoming aware of Sergio’s famed legacy as a world-class composer, I came to enjoy Sergio’s company immensely and I admired his zest for life and his love of music. After several years of planning and research, Sergio and I, along with our partner Sherry Miller, decided to unlock his treasure trove of unforgettable melodies and storied life experiences, by formulating a plan to reintroduce his music and likeness to the world, thus passing on his genius to a new generation of listeners. Together, we formed Bolero Productions LLC.

On December 15, 2009, Sergio De Karlo turned 98 years old. He was living in a convalescent hospital in San Gabriel, California. His goal was still to make it to 100. Many of his family and friends came by to see him when they could, but for the most part, only a select few came by with any regularity. Juana rarely left his side, his brother Bobby came by nearly every Sunday, and I, his friend and business partner, continued to work with Sergio on his music almost every day.

On January 10, 2010, Sergio De Karlo passed away in the loving arms of his wife Juana. He never made it to 100. Throughout his illustrious career, the Maestro of the Cuban Bolero had devoted his life to writing music about passion, love and romance. Sergio’s beautiful and soulful music is among the last of its kind in the world today.

A movie star, an impresario, a musician and a composer of more than 300 beautiful rumbas and boleros, Sergio De Karlo has influenced the music of Cuba, Mexico, the United States and the world. His ability to overcome incredible odds and his improbable rise from a young Cuban immigrant to a Hollywood star of stage and screen, should serve as an example to people of all cultures, that anyone can reach his or her dreams if they truly believe in themselves and follow their hearts.

The man who was named “Artist of the Year” in 1942 by Billboard Magazine lived an exciting life in a way that most people only dream about. When asked what his formula for success was, he said without hesitation, “I was rich, I was talented and I was good looking.” He states that his quest for stardom was fueled by an unquenching desire for fame and fortune. There have been many famous musicians and performers who have gone before him, and there will be many more now that he is gone, but when it comes to the legacy of the Maestro, Sergio De Karlo was truly one of a kind.

Cuban singer and percussionist Rolando La Serie singing Sergio de Karlo’s hit song, “Flores Negras”: